Undated handout photos of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.… (AFP )
More than a decade after he was captured in Afghanistan, John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," was in a federal court in Indiana this week seeking not his release from a federal prison in Terre Haute but the right to pray with fellow Muslim inmates several times a day. Lindh makes a plausible case that the facility is needlessly restricting his rights under federal law.
Lindh, a teenage convert to Islam who joined the Taliban before Sept. 11, 2001, never waged war against his fellow Americans. Yet he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for violating a Clinton-era presidential order that prohibits providing "services" to the Taliban. Even if Lindh's sentence weren't excessive — and it was — he has the right to practice his religion under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law provides that the government shall not "substantially burden" a person's exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that doing so furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
The Communications Management Unit that houses Lindh does allow Muslim prisoners to meet for prayer every Friday and more often during Ramadan. But, citing security concerns (and the possibility that frequent Muslim prayers would mean fewer resources to accommodate other religions), the prison administration will not allow the inmates to pray in groups several times a day. The notion that group prayers would be uniquely dangerous is difficult to credit given that they may engage in other activities outside their cells between 6 a.m. and 9:15 p.m., including conversing, snacking, playing board games, watching television and playing sports.
Group recitation of daily prayers is regarded by some Muslims as a necessity and by others only as a preference. But in a preliminary ruling, U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson concluded that "Mr. Lindh's sincerely held religious beliefs require that group prayer participants be together and be able to see and hear each other."
Prison officials believe that Lindh and other Muslim prisoners should be content with praying in their own cells at the same times, suggesting that they can hear and see each other from their cell doorways — a contention Lindh's lawyers dispute. That is a strained interpretation of "group prayer." Moreover, as the warden acknowledges, in 2006 and 2007 Muslim inmates conducted daily group prayers in a "multi-purpose room." Those sessions stopped after an incident in which inmates assembled for prayer in that room were slow to respond to a fire emergency.
Obviously, prisoners don't enjoy the same rights as other citizens, and even under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act officials can limit religious freedom for a compelling reason. But Lindh makes a persuasive case that the prison in the past was able to allow regular group prayers without unduly undermining security or the rights of non-Muslim believers. If that is still possible, the court should rule in his favor.